Illegal job interview questions

At job interviews, employers want to ascertain whether candidates are going to be a good fit for their company and more often than not they’ll do so using perfectly legal questions.

But occasionally an interviewer will use illegal questions, which could end up discriminating against the interviewee, so it pays to know what these are, whichever side of the table you’re on.

“Generally speaking any questions that reveal race, religion, national origin, gender, age, marital status and sexual orientation have the potential to be illegal,” says Simon Smith, a director at financial recruiters Marks Sattin. “The most common illegal questions are about age or marital/personal status.”

Why do illegal interview questions crop-up?

Normally, these types of questions are nothing more sinister than interviewer inexperience; however, they could be indicative of underlying issues with professionalism and culture at the company. “If the questions are deliberate, it would certainly reflect negatively on the employer and potentially deter you from considering an offer,” says Smith. “If it appears that the interviewer is deliberately asking illegal questions throughout the process, then it should raise concerns about the values and culture of the business.”

It might seem there’s a hidden agenda to such personal questioning, but an employer will likely be trying to address a legitimate concern, albeit clumsily. “It’s highly unlikely that illegal questions are some bizarre test of your morals/legal knowledge,” says Smith.

“Generally speaking, such questions are asked innocently without knowledge that they’re illegal. The motive behind these types of questions is normally an attempt to establish commitment to the role and company and that the candidate won’t be looking to ‘jump ship’ or to assess whether they’d be a cultural fit.”

What to do if you’re being asked illegal interview questions

Unfortunately, illegal questioning can set a bad tone in an interview, making it a tricky and uncomfortable situation to manage. Most interviewees are in a frame of mind whereby they’re eager to please and impress, and not wanting to jeopardise their chances of being offered the role.

Candidates are well within their rights to refuse to answer illegal questions during the interview, and it may just be the interviewer didn’t realise the questions were illegal, but the situation needs to be handled delicately. “During the interview, try to determine why the interviewer is asking the question and whether they have a legitimate concern they’re trying to address,” says Smith.

You could then adopt a number of the following approaches, continues Smith, depending on what you feel is appropriate and that you’re comfortable with:

  • Tailor your answers to address the legitimate concern, while avoiding the illegal part of the question, and turn the    conversation back to your job-related strengths.
  • Ask why the question would be an important consideration for the job and turn it back to the interviewer.
  • Try to politely remind them that the question is illegal e.g. I’m not sure it’s ok for you to ask me that question, is it?’    delivered genuinely and non-judgementally.
  • Ultimately, you can politely refuse to answer the question as it is illegal.

Examples of illegal interview questions and answers:

  • Q: How old are you? Are you over 18? What year were you born?
  •  A: I’m old enough. I prefer not to say. I don’t understand the relevance of the question.
  • Q: Are you married?
  • A: I like to keep my personal and professional lives separate.
  • Q: Are you pregnant? Do you have or plan to have children? How much longer do you plan to work before you have        children?
  • A: I like to keep my personal and professional lives separate.
  • Q: How much longer do you plan to work before you retire?
  • A: I’m keeping my options open. I haven’t decided.
  • Q: What religion do you practice? What religious holidays do you observe?
  • A: I prefer not to say. I like to keep my personal and professional lives separate.
  • Q: How do you feel about managing men or women?
  • A: Talk about your general management and leadership styles, without being specific.
  • Q: Questions about your health or disabilities
  • A: These could be considered discriminatory under the Equality Act 2010, but people can ask questions specific to you        being able to perform the role, for example, being able to lift large heavy objects.
  • Q: Have ever been criminally convicted? Have you ever been to prison?
  • A: May I ask how this relates to the role?

Neil Johnson is a freelance business journalist who contributes regularly to trade publications and member organisations, covering employability, recruitment, business trends and industrial analysis.

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